Field Trip with
Briceville Elementary School
Teachers and Staff
Validating the inscriptions on the
Coal Creek miners' headstones

2 August 2016

 View tons of pictures from the day at

Read story in The Courier News

Do you know what most of the headstones of miners who died in the 1902
Fraterville Mine and 1911 Cross Mountain Mine explosions have in common? 
They say, “Gone but not forgotten.”  Briceville Elementary School teachers
and staff validated those inscriptions today by learning about Coal Creek history
from Welsh miner/engineer David R. Thomas, who was born in
Carmarthen, South Wales in 1839. 

The field trip was a team-building activity to help teachers and staff develop
ideas for incorporating the Coal Creek Saga into their class lesson plans—after all,
it’s now part of the state’s education curriculum, their students live in the
center of where that history happened, and many of their students
are descended from those miners. 

Cannon mounted at Fort Anderson on Militia Hill
aimed at the town of Coal Creek

The tour was led by Welsh Coal Miner David R. Thomas (played by
Barry Thacker) who made history come to life for the Briceville staff

Briceville School staff ready for their field trip!

Mr. Thomas told how he came to Coal Creek after the American Civil War as part of a contingent of Welsh miners who developed a coal mine to fuel the mills of the Knoxville Iron and Coal Company.  He lost his job to convict labor in 1877, but found work in the Fraterville Mine where he later became an apprentice to engineer C. G. Popp, which qualified him for his job as an engineer with the Provident Insurance Company.

Mr. Thomas explained how miners met at Thistle Switch, located between Briceville and Fraterville, in July 1891 to devise a plan for ending convict leasing.  After the meeting, the miners captured the convict stockade in Briceville.  Miners marched the guards and convicts along the railroad tracks to the train depot in the town of Coal Creek and put them on a train to Knoxville.  They then learned how Governor Buck Buchanan visited Briceville at a meeting with miners in Tennessee Hollow to justify convict leasing.  Miners did not buy his explanation, which led to additional hostilities. 

Do you know that tee-shirts worn by teachers and staff today have symbols representing Coal Creek’s history—the cannon is from the ones manned by the Tennessee National Guard during the Coal Creek War, the miners lamp with the inscription, “Oh God, for one more breath” is from the farewell letter of Fraterville miner Jacob Vowell, and the canary represents the Cross Mountain Mine where canaries were first used to check air quality during the 1911 rescue.  Miners wore red bandanas as their uniforms during the Coal Creek War, which explains why teachers and staff wore red bandanas during our field trip.  


The notch at Drummond Bridge
where Dick Drummond was hung
during the Coal Creek War

Our first stop today was at Drummond Bridge where teachers and staff saw the notch in the bridge from where Dick Drummond was lynched during the Coal Creek War.  Teachers learned the bridge is haunted by Dick Drummond’s ghost, which is looking for revenge against the soldiers who lynched him.     

At Fort Anderson on Militia Hill, teachers and staff saw the breastworks dug around the fort where the Tennessee National Guard had its base of operations during the Coal Creek War.  At the cannon atop Militia Hill, Thomas told how miners lost the final battle, but won the war to abolish convict leasing in Tennessee when Governor Buck Buchanan lost his re-election bid.  New Governor Peter Turney fulfilled a campaign promise to end convict leasing by convincing the state legislature to appropriate money to build Brushy Mountain State Prison, Coal Mine, and Cove Ovens, thus negating the need for convict leasing.

We then walked the same path walked by 216 miners that fateful morning on 19 May 1902 before they died in the Great Fraterville Mine explosion or suffocated due to lack of oxygen.  At Fraterville Miners Circle in Leach Cemetery, teachers heard stories about the worst disaster in the history of mining in the South.

Thomas told of being on the rescue crew that found 26 miners trapped behind a barricade.  Ten of those miners wrote farewell letters to their families before suffocating.  All the letters had two common topics—God and family—which tells you all you need to know about life’s priorities in 1902.  Those letter were published in newspapers around the world to raise public awareness about the dangers of early 20th century coal mining.

Fraterville Mine site

Standing at the entrance of the Fraterville Mine

At Longfield Cemetery, Principal Travis Hutcheson read the farewell letter of Jacob Vowell over his grave, and first-grade teacher Melissa Fleming read the farewell letter of Powell Harmon over his headstone.  They learned how Harmon’s eldest son Condy had to choose between following his father’s wishes of never working in the mines and his duty to his family.  Family came first, so Condy quit attending Briceville School to work in the Cross Mountain Mine.  Condy never married or had children of his own, and died in the Cross Mountain Mine explosion.

Principal Travis Hutcheson reading the
farewell message of Jacob Vowell at Longfield Cemetery



Longfield Cemetery -- The resting place of 35 miners, including
Jacob Vowell and Powell Harmon and their sons
Elbert Vowell and Condy Harmon
featured in their poignant farewell messages
left at the Fraterville Mine explosion of 1902

Leach Cemetery -- Fraterville Miners Memorial Circle - Listed on the National Register of Historic Places

After lunch at Cracker Barrel, we visited the site of the 1904 Gunfight at the Coal Creek Train Depot where four were killed, Cross Mountain Miners Circle, and the abandoned portal of the Cross Mountain Mine. 

We ended the trip at Briceville Church, which was built in 1888 by Welsh miners.  It served as a temporary jail for miners captured during the Coal Creek War, but Thomas used it as a classroom to describe the 1911 Cross Mountain Mine disaster and rescue.  Although 84 miners died, five were rescued in the first successful rescue by engineers and apparatus crews of the U.S. Bureau of Mines. 

Teachers and staff rang the church bell in honor of those who perished during the Fraterville and Cross Mountain Mine explosions.  While visiting the headstone of Eugene and Taylor Ault, brothers who died in the 1911 Cross Mountain Mine explosion, we found where someone had left a tribute to those miners—a 1911 silver dime.   



Do you know that four of the sites visited today—Fort Anderson on
Militia Hill, Fraterville Miners Circle, Cross Mountain Miners Circle,
and Briceville Church/Cemetery—
are listed on the National Register of Historic Places? 


Farewell message of Cross Mountain Miner Eugene Ault
engraved on his headstone

Tribute found at base of headstone of Eugene Ault and Taylor Ault

Joining us on the trip were Heather Miller from the Clinton Courier News and Mona Everett from NINNAU & Y Drych, the North American Welsh Newspaper.

Foreground:  Briceville School's Janis Bishop and The Clinton Courier
News' reporter Heather Miller

Mona Everett from NINNAU & Y Drych, the North
American Welsh Newspaper

What are some of the ideas developed today for incorporating the Coal Creek Saga into school/class lesson plans?

Why not incorporate musical competitions along with the school’s annual Dixie Eisteddfod literary competitions as the Welsh did in 1890 in Knoxville and 1891 in Chattanooga?  Mr. Thomas offered to provide music from those historic events.

Why not sponsor a heritage event that is open to the entire community?  Mr. Thomas suggested a re-enactment of the Briceville Grand Picnic as described in the poster from the July 1892 event. 

Poster from 20 July 1892 Grand Picnic
event in Briceville

Music and announcements from the
Dixie Eisteddfod held in
Chattanooga, TN in 1891


David R.Thomas donated a collection
of Welsh language books to Harvard in
1915 to preserve Welsh literature as
discussed in "The Welsh of Tennessee"
by Dr. Eirug Davies



The title of the textbook comes
from the farewell message of
Fraterville miner Jacob Vowell


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